RENO — President Barack Obama on Thursday made his first visit to Northern Nevada since winning the White House, stopping to once again woo swing voters who will decide his fate in 2012.
“It is great to be back here in Reno, great to be back in Nevada,” said Obama, who in 2008 campaigned furiously across the state, covering both the largely conservative North and more liberal South.
Last year, Obama visited Las Vegas several times to campaign for U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of the Senate, who won.
On Thursday, the president never mentioned Reid. Instead, he talked up his economic program and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., a Las Vegas-based congresswoman who is running for the U.S. Senate and who needs to raise her profile up North.
“Somebody who’s working hard for you, Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, is here,” Obama said as he introduced more than a half-dozen Nevada politicians, mostly Democrats.
GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval and his family greeted Obama at the Reno airport. And Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki, who leads economic development efforts, sat through the president’s town hall at ElectraTherm, a clean-energy company that has brought 44 jobs and an expanding business to Nevada.
Obama touted clean energy, education and his proposal to cut government spending by $4 trillion over 12 years. Yet the political purpose of his two-hour pit stop in the Biggest Little City in the World was to shore up support for his re-election campaign, which he kicked off with three town halls this week. He also held a half-dozen fundraisers, bringing in millions toward his goal of $1 billion for his campaign.
Winning Nevada is part of Obama’s re-election strategy because it’s a bellwether, early voting state in the West that he won with more than 55 percent of the vote in 2008.
He won by the same percentage in Washoe County, which has become the central battleground in the battleground state.
“He’s going to need to carry Washoe County to win statewide,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It’s as simple as that.”
Obama’s visit also could help Berkley if the president does well at the top of the ticket, although the 2012 election promises to be unpredictable for Democrats and Republicans at the state and national levels.
The president’s quick visit to Reno, for example, was overshadowed by news that U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., will resign effective May 3. Sandoval is widely expected to appoint Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., to Ensign’s seat. That would give Heller an immediate advantage over Berkley in their ultimate 2012 matchup. Heller would run as the incumbent, giving him a power post and a boost in fundraising.
Obama also must sell Nevadans suffering the nation’s worst economy on his deficit reduction plan over the GOP-run House’s proposal by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to cut spending by $6.2 trillion over 10 years.
In his 30-minute speech to more than 400 invited guests, Obama acknowledged Nevada is still hurting with the highest unemployment rate at more than 13 percent, as well as the top home foreclosure and bankruptcies rates. Yet he argued Nevada will recover if the state invests in education and clean energy.
“I recognize that a state like Nevada has to make tough choices,” Obama said. “I just think it is very important, in making those choices, not to be shortsighted.”
He suggested, for example, that universities and colleges would be better off investing in improving academic programs instead of building fancy gyms and cafeterias. He also touted scholarships, which helped put him through college and set him on a path to power.
Obama noted that more than 50,000 college students from Nevada rely on Pell Grants. He said Berkley helped put more money into the program by eliminating subsidies to banks handling student loans.
“That was the right thing to do,” Obama said to applause.
“Now you’ve got some folks in Congress who want to roll back some of those changes,” he added, without noting that those folks happen to be Republicans.
He used ElectraTherm as an example of maintaining the U.S. leading edge in technology. The company builds a “Green Machine” that converts industrial heat into electrical energy. It is selling three to four units, 6-by-6 feet wide and 8 feet tall, a month, and sales are growing.
“I want to make sure that we are also the frontrunners, the leaders, when it comes to solar, when it comes to wind, when it comes to waste heat, geothermal, right?” Obama said.
The company won a federal grant of nearly $1 million. Obama said the United States should continue to invest in clean energy instead of giving subsidies to big oil companies as gasoline prices hit $4 a gallon.
With rising pump prices in mind, Obama announced he had asked the Justice Department to create a team to “root out any cases of fraud or manipulation in the oil markets that might affect gas prices.”
“That includes the role of traders and speculators,” he said. “We are going to make sure that no one is taking advantage of American consumers for their own short-term gain.”
The Justice Department is also looking at allegations of price gouging, Obama said.
Before heading back to Washington, Obama said he believes Democrats will be able to reach a deal with Republicans to cut spending and reduce the record U.S. government debt and deficit.
“I’m optimistic. I’m hopeful. I’m confident that we can come together,” Obama said, while predicting a solution won’t come easy. “I’m willing to bet that along the way some politics will be played.”
Obama encouraged people to stay involved and invited voters to judge political leaders at the polls.
“I don’t want you to be bystanders in this debate” he said. “I want you to hold me accountable. I want you to hold Washington accountable.”
Contact reporter Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919.President Obama’s speech in Reno,April 21